The case of the shocked Pope

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GREAT BARRINGTON

It was Sunday, Oct. 13, 1895. The evening began quietly enough at the Franklin L. Pope residence on South Main Street, Great Barrington.

Leonard, 15, was reading in the south parlor. He reached to turn on the electric lamp and received a tingle. He told his dad. Franklin Pope left the parlor to investigate and, according to an account in Western Electrician for Oct. 26, 1895, "the next that was known of him was the heavy fall and the crash of glass caused by the breaking of a lamp chimney." Daughter Hannah, 19, went to the basement to check on her father. When she went to the northeast corner, "she saw her father's head on the floor as she approached, and heard the gurgling sound caused by the relaxation of the muscles in cases of this kind."

The family summoned Dr. Alfred Large, who attempted artificial respiration, without success.

Pope had descended the cellar stairs with a kerosene lamp in hand. He went to check on two power transformers near a window. It was raining hard and the window was ajar. A breeze perhaps blew out the lamp. There was moisture on the floor. Pope, it was speculated, reached to shut the window when his hand brushed against a live wire on one transformer. The shock sent him smashing to the floor.

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Franklin Leonard Pope had been born in town in 1840. His first job, at age 17, was as telegraph operator in the Great Barrington office. From there he rocketed to success. To mention just a few achievements: he mapped a prospective route across British Columbia and the Yukon for Collins Overland Telegraph in 1864, edited The Telegrapher in 1867 and 1868 and partnered with Thomas A. Edison to develop a one-wire telegraphic printer in 1869. He was chief legal advisor to George Westinghouse in the 1880s.

He semi-retired to Great Barrington in 1890. As consulting engineer to the Great Barrington Electric Light Co., Pope was instrumental in contracting with Stanley Electric of Pittsfield to supply electricity to Monument Mills in Housatonic in 1893, from a station at Alger Furnace. Surplus power was sent to Great Barrington for private customers.

To monitor the system, Pope had transformers placed in his basement. (Usually they would have been outside on utility poles.)

This was a critical period in the ongoing struggle between the interests of direct-current electricity and alternating-current. Edison's d-c backers waged a vigorous campaign and called a-c unsafe. This episode could play into their hands. Thus the American Institute of Electrical Engineers wanted to determine a precise cause of Pope's death.

Joining Dr. Large to perform an autopsy was Dr. Whitmell P. Small -- yes, Drs. Large and Small -- who told the press "death was caused by the full force of the electric current passing through Mr. Pope's body and that death was instantaneous."

Death records at Great Barrington's Town Hall indicate Franklin L. Pope, "electrician," died "accidentally by Electricity." Mrs. Pope did not believe her husband died from the electrical charge. She had the a-c system at Wainwright Hall repaired and returned to service.

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A trio of top-notch electrical engineers served as an informal coroner's jury.

William Stanley of Pittsfield, Professor Edward Weston of Newark, N.J., and George A. Hamilton of Western Union Telegraph in New York City examined the transformers, which had been made in 1890. They did not reveal the manufacturer. (They were not Stanley transformers, for which production did not begin until 1892.)

If you find modern-day television dramas such as CSI or Bones or NCIS engrossing for their forensics detail, consider the thoroughness that went into this examination. Stanley, Weston and Hamilton took measurements, made diagrams and collected testimony.

They also looked at evidence on Pope's hands. "It is certain, therefore, that Mr. Pope did not intentionally touch any part of the apparatus and that fact that the marks on the hands are all on parts which are never used for the purposes of adjusting feeling or investigating anything is positive proof that the fatal contact of the hand with the electrical apparatus was accidentally made," they said.

They looked at Pope's shoes. "These spots on the soles of his shoes and the marks on his right hand serve to conclusively prove that the circuit was completed through his feet and right hand and taken alone they would established the fact that some parts of the primary or 2000 volt circuit was connected with the earth or grounded."

A jolt of 2,000 volts, the scientists knew, would not automatically kill someone.

Consider the experience of James E. Cutler, an employee in the transformer department at Stanley Electric Manufacturing. Just a year before, in 1894, he had grasped a live wire and taken a 4,800-volt jolt. It knocked him flat. He stopped breathing. Quick-thinking co-workers restored him to consciousness and his only after-effect was a burned palm.

The Oct. 24 Berkshire Courier summed it up: "Mr. Pope's Death Due to Accident and Not to Carelessness."

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Robert Tepper and his wife (and innkeeper) Marja Tepper Grader maintain Wainwright Inn today. Tepper graciously gave me a tour of the "scene of the crime." We descended the same stairs as Pope in 1895. The day of my visit, green yule decorations hung in front of the three-pane window through which electricity entered the house in 1895.

Knob-and-tube remnants of early house wiring cling to the floor joists in front of the window. There is little evidence of the transformers that were mounted on the chimney base.

Was I expecting chalk marks on the floor and blood splatters? Of course not. But I felt wired in to a fascinating episode of electrical history.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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